Easter is one of those holidays, like Christmas, that has some really famous, really well-loved, really satisfying hymns to sing. Jesus Christ is ris’n today or its twin, Christ the Lord is ris’n today, are so classic I’m tempted to say “Easter just wouldn’t be Easter without singing that song!” There are, of course, many other Easter hymns of lesser fame that are quite fantastic for the holiday, and one of my favorites in that middle category is At the lamb’s high feast we sing. Set to the tune SALZBURG, it bears a grandeur both lyric and melodic that deserves higher praise than it usually seems to get.
At the lamb’s high feast we sing
Praise to our victorious King,
Who hath washed us in the tide
Flowing from his pierced side;
Praise we him, whose love divine
Gives his sacred blood for wine,
Gives his body for the feast,
Christ the victim Christ the priest.
That first stanza sets us firmly in the Easter celebration, makes a baptismal reference (as is traditional in the Easter celebrations), and then moves seamlessly to a eucharistic reference. I especially appreciate how his sacrifice is described in the active sense: he gives his blood and body; he’s not just Christ the victim, but also Christ the priest! This is, in my opinion, an emphasis that we often lack when discussing the atonement.
The second stanza continues:
Where the Psachal blood is poured,
Death’s dark angel sheathes his sword;
Israel’s hosts triumphant go
Thro’ the wave that drowns the foe.
Praise we Christ, whose blood was shed,
Paschal victim, Paschal bread;
With sincerity and love
Eat we manna from above.
The baptismal and eucharistic references remain, but are couched in more overtly Old Testament imagery, invoking the Passover and the Crossing of the Red Sea as the foreshadowings or prototypes of these two Sacraments of the Gospel. It even manages (in the last two lines of this stanza) to reference the Easter Anthem (The Pascha Nostrum) and invoke the context of the teachings of 1 Corinthians 10, linking the Old Testament (particularly Exodus) waters and manna images to the New Covenant sacraments.
Mighty victim from the sky,
Hell’s fierce pow’rs beneath thee lie;
Thou hast conquered in the fight;
Thou hast brought us life and light;
Now no more can death appall,
Now no more the grave enthrall;
Thou hast opened paradise,
And in thee thy saints shall rise.
The brief Passover reference at the beginning of stanza 2 – the sheathing of the destroying angel’s sword – is explored here in full force. The death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ has brought about a great victory. Jesus is a “mighty victim from the sky”, yet, “Hell’s fierce powers” lie beneath him. He has conquered, he has brought us from death to life, and those evils can never reign over us again; the hope of our own resurrection to eternal life is sealed for sure.
This leads the hymn to a great doxological ending:
Easter triumph, Easter joy,
Sin alone can this destroy;
From sin’s pow’r do thou set free
Souls new-born, O Lord, in thee.
Hymns of glory, songs of praise,
Father unto thee we raise;
Risen Lord, all praise to thee
With the Spirit ever be. Amen.
That second line always bugs me – “sin alone can this destroy“… It is obviously meant that sin is the object, not the subject, of the verb destroy: Easter triumph and joy alone can destroy sin. But there’s just no decent way to get the word order sorted out with perfect clarity without destroying the rhyme scheme of the lyrics. You just have to roll with the poetry, which we moderns and post-moderns are not generally very good at doing. Getting over that shortcoming in ourselves, however, this is a logical and fitting apex for the hymn. Christ’s victory is over sin itself, and in his Gospel we find freedom. And thus we praise the triune God, Father, Risen Lord, and Spirit.
There’s still plenty of Easter Sundays left… get it into your congregation’s hands if you haven’t already! It works as a communion hymn, offertory/doxology hymn, processional, recessional… nearly anywhere in the liturgy where singing can be found!